Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel put out a lengthy piece over the weekend about the impact of FBS-level schools cutting back on FCS opponents. The article doesn’t really break any new ground, but it hits some of the high points:
- Financially, a body bag game presents a win-win for both sides;
- Power conference schools are feeling the heat to cut back on cupcakes to improve their profiles for the playoff selection committee;
- Therefore, the little guys stand to lose a bundle by losing out on the paydays.
That’s not really all of the story.
All fans dream of seeing their favorite teams hoisting a national championship trophy at the end of the season. In reality, even as the playoff expands from two to four teams, a small fraction of 120-plus FBS programs have a true shot at the final four. For the vast majority, just making a bowl game -- not to mention the bonuses available to coaches and administrators for doing so -- constitutes the endgame.
The suggestion that Wake Forest or Kansas or Indiana should allow angling for the playoffs to dictate their scheduling strategies is laughable. I doubt that’s lost on the shot callers.
Murschel neglects to mention that ESPN and FOX would love to see scheduling ramp up, which is the most powerful motivator of all. Especially with conference and school networks still getting their bearings, stocking programming inventories with more attractive matchups takes on even greater importance. Note that the Big Ten, which has an ownership stake in its channel, has been the most outspoken league about ditching the tomato cans.
Like most fans, I’d love to see more quality games every year. I don’t get off on seeing bullies pound on weaklings. (When they do.) I’m not tuning in to watch Florida State tune up Bethune-Cookman.
(Also, while I understand that those games make big bucks for the small schools, that’s a bizarre justification to me. If that’s the objective, the big boys could accomplish it by only scheduling each other and setting up a direct subsidy program for the lower levels.)
However, here’s the part where I get all ACLU on you: The problem with these top-down scheduling policies isn’t what they will achieve; it’s how they propose to do it.
College football became what it is today in part because it marches to its own beat. Idiosyncrasy is embedded in its DNA, and that has played a big role in making it the best sport ever invented.
Part of that extends down to whom you play. Schools have wide latitude to do whatever they want with a quarter to a third of their schedules every year. That works out well because they all seem to have different masters to serve. For example, Alabama has an affinity for the ESPN-brokered season openers at neutral sites. USC and Stanford have steady dates with Notre Dame. There are regional rivalries such as Clemson-South Carolina to be played. (There are also the games left unplayed out of pure pettiness.)
Gradually, however, the schools are giving away that autonomy that has defined college football. They’re taking their cues from their league offices, which get their marching orders from the networks. The sport is starting to look a whole lot like the made-for-TV NFL, a league so defined by homogeneity that players can be fined if the length of their socks deviates from league-wide standards.
I get that this sounds like something straight from the black helicopter set. Slippery slope arguments have a tendency to come off that way.
But the NFL way of doing things has produced a financial bonanza for all involved. You can be sure that the TV networks would love to model the college game off of what is working so well for the pros. Assuming they even care, the schools should treat scheduling as a beachhead. If they allow the conferences and networks to continue incrementally amassing control over scheduling, just hand everything over to Bristol.